Opinion: ‘Future of Peterborough’s New Ark must be secured’

Toby Wood, of Peterborough Civic Society writes...

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 19th March 2022, 5:15 pm
New Ark Farm
New Ark Farm

The Civic Society is not just about buildings, planning and development matters.

‘Civic’ means relating to a town or city and ‘society’ is not just an organisation, but also the promotion of people living together in an orderly community.

So it is with alarm that I note the financial plight currently being experienced by New Ark, an organisation close to my heart, as I was their first summer holiday playleader back in 1976.

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New Ark, situated behind Hill Close shops, near to Newark Hill Academy, is an adventure playground, city farm and eco centre; the only such place in Peterborough and indeed the only staffed adventure playground now open in the city.

Peterborough’s council-run adventure playgrounds closed long ago; victims of financial stringency and the fact that facilities for children (people not old enough to vote) are too often overlooked and are non-statutory.

New Ark was the brainchild of local residents Donne and Elisabeth Buck.

Donne was the children’s play officer for the development corporation and Elisabeth had wide knowledge and expertise in the field of child development.

Not only did they set up and run New Ark, they oversaw its growth until recently. In 2009, Elisabeth was awarded an MBE for services to children and families. Both still live locally and have been visionary in their thinking and formidable in their resolve to get things done.

However, the problem today is that we live in times of a national curriculum, health and safety guidelines and an over-emphasis on pragmatism. Flair, imagination and risk-taking are thought of as ‘woke’ (dreadful word). Yet these are the very qualities we should be encouraging and which eventually lead to creativity and innovation.

I often ask people: “How does someone become a pole vaulter? Are you just given a long pole and told jump over that high bar?”

I think not. I’m led to believe that the first thing a budding pole vaulter is encouraged to do is to fall properly. Once that has been mastered, the vaulter is then taught the techniques of jumping higher, safe in the knowledge that falling and making mistakes is both safe and acceptable.

New Ark encourages children to experiment and learn wider than a purely school setting, in a safe and secure environment.

New Ark provides activities that are central to healthy child development, not, as some might think, additional inessential luxuries.

To quote their own website: “We believe in the child’s right to play. Play is the child’s natural way of learning about the world, themselves and other people. Children need play opportunities that encourage exploration, adventure and enterprise. Having enough time and space for play increases children’s health and happiness.

Play makes life more interesting and fun!”

New Ark is a valuable local asset and supports a wide variety of young people, from pre-school through school age and even older. I know they have also supported and worked with young people who are, for a variety of reasons, out of full-time education. Should New Ark be forced to close, it would be a tragedy.

New Ark has been an independent organisation since it was set up.

It is not local-authority run and relies on donations, volunteers and fund-raising.

It also seeks grants and contracts from outside bodies, such as the council. It fits entirely with the government’s philosophy of local people responding to local demand, using initiative and harnessing business expertise.

It has provided services for children that have complemented what the council has been able to offer. Sadly, the council is, as we know, strapped for cash and is unable to utilise what New Ark has to offer. Currently there are various fund-raising initiatives.

Laudable though these might be, it is indicative of our times that cash to keep the organisation afloat has to come from people jumping out of planes as opposed to that funding being an integral part of society’s automatic and instinctive offer to our young people.

Perhaps a not-so-secret millionaire will be forthcoming.

Over the years Donne and Elisabeth Buck and the staff and volunteers at New Ark have steadfastly refused to succumb to the curse of pessimism.

They are forthright, caring and imaginative, precisely the qualities we should be promoting in 21st century Britain. We cannot allow their hard work and diligence to go unrewarded. Let us hope that ways are found to help New Ark to succeed well into the future.

New Ark is one of those organisations that should make us proud of Peterborough. A city without New Ark is not only undesirable... it is unthinkable.